Oldest Known Christianity Book Buried In Egyptian Sands For 1,500 Years Sells for Nearly $4 Million

The oldest known Christianity book that was buried in the Egyptian sands for more than a millennium scored nearly $4 million at auction. The Crosby-Schøyen Codex, which was written in the early 4th century by a Coptic monk in southern Egypt, sold for $3.89 million at Christie’s.

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex is expected to fetch millions at auction
The Crosby-Schøyen Codex. (credit: Christie’s)

The sacred text has become a pivotal artifact in the history of Christianity and the development of the modern book format.

“This is the oldest known book in private hands, and at the same time one of the oldest books in existence,” says Eugenio Donadoni, Christie’s senior specialist in Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts. “There is evidence that codices existed earlier, but none has survived. That makes this a unique object in the history of Christianity and of information technology.”

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex is a papyrus codex, an early form of a book, consisting of sheets of papyrus folded and bound together. This format was a significant departure from the traditional scroll, which had been the standard for centuries in the Greco-Roman world. The codex offered several advantages: it allowed for longer texts to be compiled into a single volume, provided easier access to specific passages, and doubled the writing area by utilizing both sides of the papyrus sheets.

The monk who created the Crosby-Schøyen Codex was part of the emerging Christian monastic movement, inspired by the teachings of Pachomius, known as the “Desert Father.” Pachomius founded the first Christian monastery in Egypt around 318 AD, and by the time of his death in 345 AD, the Pachomian federation had grown to include eight monasteries and several hundred monks.

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex contains five texts, all centered around the themes of Easter, martyrdom, and resurrection. The first four texts are translations from Greek, including the earliest known complete texts of the First Epistle of Peter and the Book of Jonah, as well as one of the earliest and most complete versions of Melito of Sardis’ homily on the Passover. The fifth text, a Pachomian homily, is believed to be an original Coptic work, possibly composed within the monastic community itself.

“It tells us about the spread of the new faith within a few generations of the life of Christ, and little more than 100 years after the last gospel was written,” explains Donadoni.

The codex’s journey from its creation to the present day is a fascinating story of chance and perseverance. It was likely buried with other texts during the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century to protect it from destruction. The manuscript remained hidden in the dry Egyptian sands for over 1,500 years until it was unearthed by farmers in the early 1950s.

In 1955, the codex was acquired by the University of Mississippi through donations from the Friends of the Library, with a significant contribution from Margaret Reed Crosby. When Crosby first saw the manuscript, she reportedly described it as “the ugliest book I have ever seen.” However, the true significance of the codex was revealed after extensive conservation efforts, which involved unbinding, flattening, and sealing the delicate papyrus pages between glass plates.

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex’s format, with its two-column layout, numbered pages, and justified text, bears a striking resemblance to modern books. This similarity serves as a testament to the enduring influence of early Christian book production on the development of the codex format and the printed word.

As Christopher de Hamel, a renowned expert on medieval manuscripts, notes, the Crosby-Schøyen Codex’s pagination “has an importance not only in understanding the codicological structure of the volume itself but also in the wider history of the evolution from the classical roll into the codex which enabled the reader to move around the text effortlessly and find specific passages.”

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex was part of the “Manuscript Masterpieces from The Schøyen Collection” sale at Christie’s. Overall, the collection sold for $9.55 million at auction.

Leave a Reply